It was the poorest-kept secret in town: The unidentified "Special Guests" on the bill at Saturday night's Love Language show at Carrboro, N.C.'s Cat's Cradle were Archers of Loaf, the much-beloved indie icons from adjacent Chapel Hill, making their first public appearance since 1998 (at the site of their last show, no less). So it wasn't surprising that the place was packed to capacity, but it was surprising that their reunion performance lived up to and beyond the expectations of even the sunniest optimist.
You wouldn't call the Archers influential, exactly, because it's difficult to pinpoint anyone who has followed in their idiosyncratic musical wake. They were the perfect next-step band for those who found Pavement too straightforward, with an angular guitar roar that was always just a little too weird for mainstream tastes. But the Archers remain a talisman of a tremendously optimistic time in underground music, that 15-minute period in the early 1990s when it looked like indie rock really might take over the world.
Chapel Hill was an oasis on the alternative-rock chitlin circuit, and the Archers ruled the town alongside Superchunk and Polvo. Flash forward to 2011 and Polvo is back together, Superchunk is on the Billboard 200, and Superchunk's label, Merge Records, is a chart-topping powerhouse whose roster includes Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the night's headliner, the high-volume, dreamy pop stylings of Love Language -- a band that can sell out the Cradle just fine on its own, even without reunion rumors.
That leaves the Archers as the missing piece of the puzzle, which seemed likely to remain the case until recently. Since disbanding the Archers, frontman Eric Bachmann has spent the past dozen years getting in touch with his inner Neil Diamond, recording under the Crooked Fingers moniker. But in a 2006 interview, Bachmann admitted that he missed "the jumping around" aspect of the Archers, a longing that has grown more acute of late. Conversations about regrouping began last July, followed by a handful of practices leading up to this 40-minute test drive to see how it went. Bachmann was positively beaming by the end, so it seems likely that you'll be seeing them again.
The 12-song set was one the Archers could have played in 1995, drawing numbers from their first two full-length albums and 1994's Archers of Loaf vs. The Greatest of All Time EP (the unlikely star of the show, with four of five songs offered up). After hoofing in their own gear, they commenced at a leisurely pace with the detuned guitar drone that introduces "Audiowhore." You could sort of feel the crowd holding its collective breath in hopeful anticipation, and letting out huge sighs of relieved exultation as Bachmann, guitarist Eric Johnson, bassist Matt Gentling and drummer Mark Price exploded into the first verse. There was indeed much jumping about, in the audience as well as on the stage.
Oddly enough, a shower of marshmallows greeted the next song, "Harnessed in Slums," creating a gooey mess that caused a few technical glitches when Gentling's cord kept sticking to his boots and coming unplugged. But that was about it for rough spots, as everyone fell right into muscle memory. "Nostalgia" served as ironic commentary on the proceedings. The crowd turned "Might," "Wrong" and other anthems into spirited bellow-alongs. "Web in Front" still has the greatest chorus tagline ever ("All I ever wanted was to be your spine"). And "Freezing Point" was just beautiful, coasting along on a jaggedly catchy hook.
It was start-to-finish great.
WATCH: Archers of Loaf, "Harnessed in Slums"
WATCH: Archers of Loaf, "Web In Front"
WATCH: Archers of Loaf, "Audiowhore"